TAMPA, Fla. – The conventional battle cry for teams beginning a playoff series on the road is to steal a game before heading home.
Red Wings coach Jeff Blashill is a little more aggressive when it comes to the underdog doctrine. But a series split is the best the Wings can do now after the Tampa Bay Lightning took a 1-0 series lead with a 3-2 win in Game 1 on Wednesday.
With a win in tonight’s Game 2 at Amalie Arena, the Wings can return home with a series split, something the team has managed to do in each of their past five playoff series.
The first-round series shifts to Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena for Games 3 and 4 on Sunday and Tuesday.
“I didn’t come down here wanting to come away with a split,” Blashill said. “We wanted to come down here and win four games as fast as possible and we weren’t able to do it in Game 1. Ultimately, each game is extremely important and we want to win a hockey game tonight, and that’s our single focus here tonight.”
If the Wings are to gain a split after two games, they need to slow the Lightning’s top forward line from repeating its Game 1 performance. Center Tyler Johnson and forwards Nikita Kucherov and Alex Killorn were dazzling on Wednesday, accounting for all three Tampa goals.
“They’re an unbelievable team,” Wings defenseman Niklas Kronwall said. “When they get the time and space – they got a little bit too much space obviously in the first game – and when they do get the extra time and space, they got so much talent, so much skill, they’re an extremely dangerous team. So that’s one area obviously we have to improve. Just take away more time and space.”
Maintaining better gap control, among other things, will be key throughout the rest of the series for the Red Wings. Lightning coach Jon Cooper suspects Detroit will make the necessary adjustments in Game 2 to prevent plays from developing like they did on Kucherov’s first goal of Wednesday’s game.
“They came down on us and we broke it,” Cooper said. “Then all of a sudden we got three guys with speed. Now our guys are hard to catch and their D had backed off, so it gave skilled players a little bit of room. Those are the times you have to take advantage because that doesn’t happen very often.”
The Wings plan to deploy different defensive pairings in hopes to combating the Lightning’s speed.
“Slow them down before they even get the puck,” Kronwall said. “We gotta be close right away. That way it will be harder for them to gain that speed. We gotta be tighter all over the ice really.”
Blashill said the club will shift from the defensive pairings that they used for most of the season. The plan is to at least begin the game with the following three pairings: Kronwall-Alexey Marchenko; Kyle Quincey-Mike Green; and Danny DeKeyser-Jonathan Ericsson.
“It’s going to be a lot of switches,” Ericsson said. “It’s just a matter of whoever’s out there we’ve got to do a good job on all of the lines. … It’s small things that decide if they score a goal or not and they got their margins on the right side in the last game. Obviously we’ve got to try and do a better job of that.”
The Red Wings will look to end a four-game losing streak at Tampa, which dates to last spring's Game 7. The Lightning has outscored Detroit 14-5 during that four-game stretch.
“Obviously you want to win every game but at the same time you have to face reality,” Kronwall said. “It’s easier said than done. But of course going home with 1-1 instead of being down two would be a big difference.”
STANDUP GUY: Following the Wings’ Game 1 loss, rookie Dylan Larkin stepped up and admitted to some in the media that he messed up on the Lightning’s first goal.
Larkin’s admission earned applause from his coach.
“It says lots about his character that’s he’s comfortable enough in his own skin that he can admit mistakes,” Blashill said. “When you’re comfortable in your abilities and comfortable in your own skin, you allow yourself to say, ‘I should have been better in this area’ and that’s how you get better. You can only get better if you admit you have to.”
In Game 1, his first-ever experience in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Larkin skated a season-low 11:30 of ice time with a minus-1 rating and no shots on goal. It was just the eighth time this season that Larkin – who had a team-best 221 shots during the regular season – was held without a shot during a game.
“One thing about Dylan is he’s shown the capacity to learn and get better,” Blashill said. “He doesn’t make the same mistake over and over again. He generally improves on it. I’m sure he’ll be better in those situations tonight.”
GRADING OUT: Asked to grade the Lightning’s speedy forecheck in Game 1, Cooper gave his forwards a B overall.
Tampa’s forecheck started slow but managed to pick up steam as the game went along, causing all sorts of issues and turnovers for the Red Wings.
“I would say a C+ in the first period, a C+ in the second period and probably an A in the third,” Cooper said Friday morning. “I thought we really got on them the more aggressive we were. The Wings, especially in that first period, they danced around us and we gave them a little too much space. … In the third, we kind of had our legs and we were aggressive on them. I thought when we closed that off it was a lot harder for them to get through. We just have to keep being aggressive because when we give them time in space they just have too many good players to make us look silly.”
SERIES ADVANTAGE: Under Cooper’s tutelage, the Lightning hasn’t won the first two games of a playoff series that’s started at home.
Cooper would like to change that tonight against the Red Wings.
“You’re putting a lot of pressure on our opponent to look after home ice and that’s the big thing,” said Cooper about the possibility of taking a 2-0 series lead with a win tonight.
“No different than if they win tonight, now it’s 1-1 and all of a sudden the pressure’s on us and we have to go and win in their building,” Cooper added. “That’s the difference. … As I’ve always said, series go up and down, teams win in each other’s buildings. But if it ever gets to Game 7 you don’t know how the results gonna be but you want to make sure that you’re home.”
The Lightning split the first two games last year against Detroit in the first round and against Chicago in the Stanley Cup finals. Tampa Bay lost four straight to Montreal in 2014.
“Being up 2-0,” Cooper said, “is a lot better than being tied 1-1.”